Halászlé: Hungarian Fisherman's Soup

Hungary is a river and lake country, with the Danube and Tisza rivers running through it's heart and Europe's largest freshwater body of water, Lake Balaton, in the west. Because it's so flat, and the water flows with such lethargy, it is also a land of big, slow fish. Carp, brown bullhead, sturgeon and catfish are plentiful, and their big carcasses and bones are excellent for stewing. We are staying in Baja, a fishing town on the banks of the southern Danube, where "halászlé" - fisherman's soup - is a culinary universality.
We've had three meals of halászlé so far. Above, the second best of the three, served to us at Panzio Vizafogó.
The Baja dish differs from other preparations in a couple of ways, but the basic recipe is almost always the same. A thick fish stock is flavored with an oily roux of paprika and onions, then used to braise heavy cuts of catfish or carp (or brown bullhead). It's hearty and easy to dress up in a number of ways. In Baja, little egg noodles are added to the broth and the fish is served on the side - so that the bones are easier to pick out, one waiter told us.
Baja is something of a halászlé capital, and it is assumed that travelers here have come for the soup. On the second weekend of July (sadly, after we leave the country), two thousand cooks will congregate here for an annual festival and soup boil-off. The dish's epicenter is on Petőfi island, where two restaurants claim to have the very best halászlé: Sobri Halászcsárdát and Vizafogó. We can say, with great certainty, that Vizafogó is far superior - though it's much less busy and doesn't have a "gypsy" band performing on the weekends. Above is the worst halászlé of the three, from Sobri Halászcsárdát, where we suspect they use a tomato soup base, and a fairly flavorless one at that.
If you really want good Halászlé, it might be worth it to head north from Baja to Korona Étterem in Kalocsa - the paprika capital of the world (maybe) - to try their variety. More spicy and more intensely fishy, it's delicious and simple. Without the noodles the broth stands out more, and the richer paprika compliments the sludgy consistency well. It's a better bowl of soup, really, and a great meal.
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